I visited a secret garden in Birmingham city centre and met people who said it 'changed their lives'

As she waves a small potted mint plant in the air, Nigina Akram, 44, smiles. "All I wanted was a coffee to get me through things,” she said, reflecting on her life two years ago before joining the Growing Project. “I was holding onto a coffee cup but now I’m holding onto plants.”

After allegedly escaping plans for a forced marriage, the police rescued her and placed her under protection, but she described the experience as “terrifying”.

The once successful businesswoman was left homeless, drifting between 15 often unsafe temporary accommodations in under 5 months. Then, during the pandemic, she lived alone for two years without any human contact.

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I lost myself. I didn't have anyone to support me," Akram said. But in 2022 she came across the Growing Project through a Birmingham-based women’s support group she had been a part of. Since then, she said, her life has changed.

"I feel like I’ve found a family here," she said. "They've given me love and support."

The Growing Project was set up by Grand Union, a Digbeth-based arts organisation, in 2019. It's a community programme that uses gardening, art-making and cooking as a way of offering support to those passing through difficult times.

Since its creation, the Project has created four gardens in supported housing, initiated three growing spaces across the city centre, and been featured on BBC ’s Gardeners’ World. Throughout, the programme has partnered with organisations that support vulnerably-housed people and those experiencing crises.

Each Wednesday the Project's all-female Minerva Group meets alongside the Grand Union Canal. The group plants herbs and flowers, makes art together, and spends the afternoon cooking and eating lunch together. This week, I joined in.

It was twenty-something degrees outside when I arrived at Grand Union's studios in Digbeth. A dozen or so women were sitting round a table chatting, passing round bowls of ice cream and waving folded fans .

I assumed I had missed out on lunch but as I took the only empty seat at the table, Jo Capper, Grand Union’s co-programme director and founder of the Growing Project, slid me a colourful plate of frittata and salad.

“I call Jo mom,” the woman sitting next to me said. “Jo’s the mommy bear.” She quickly added, “When I call someone Mom, it’s a sign of respect.”

Before joining Grand Union, Capper was an artist and curator, but she had always wanted to work on a programme that combined "social and environmental injustice".

Gardening wasn’t something that Capper had expertise in, but that didn't matter. Gardening can often be seen as intimidating, she said, but the Project isn’t about how well you do something but rather the process of doing it.

“Through the material qualities of being in a garden and being in nature we are able to develop meaning and purpose and connection for people,” Capper explained.

But Capper's favourite part of the Project is learning about individual’s achievements both large and small.

Before finding the organisation, many of the women said they were fearful of new places and of learning new things. Debbie Southgate, 42, said the trauma had endured in her personal life left her feeling unconfident and like a “shadow”.

“These guys kind of saved my life,” she said. “It took me six months to come and you know what? It’s been the best two years of my life."

She quickly invited her daughter and mother-in-law to come along to the Growing Project with her. “It’s become a whole family affair,” she said.

After lunch, we went down to the Grand Union Canal, only a few steps away from Grand Union's studios. The Project has transformed the formerly unused space into a garden full of herbs and flowers, all with medicinal properties.

The herbs are implemented in the group’s cooking and sometimes used to make tea bags. But not all herbs can be grown here, due to the toxicity of the inner city.

As we admire the garden, a black bin bag floats along the canal. Inside the bag are empty bottles.

"We recognise the toxicity and the waste that exists in the city," Capper said. "Before we can turn them into growing spaces where we can potentially grow food, we have to undertake some remediation."

Capper explains that Grand Union has been working with the University of Birmingham to investigate soil toxicity and plans to develop this work more in the future.

For now though, Capper says, what the Project has achieved is healing and growing people as much as the plants themselves. The Minerva Group has cultivated a positive space for women to support each other.

"Grand Union is a place where they welcome everybody," Akram said. "Knowing that Grand Union has accepted me is huge because I belong in a society. I’m not alone."